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Why is this MARC train parked in Denver?

If you were in Denver this weekend, you might've seen an unusual sight: A MARC commuter rail train parked behind Denver Union Station.

MARC in Denver. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

What gives?

Turns out the train was in Colorado as part of the testing for MARC's new locomotives. Officials wanted to test the new locomotives with actual MARC rolling stock, to evaluate how the locomotives performed in real-life conditions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a test track in Pueblo, CO, so off this train went.

The train was in Denver because Amtrak carries the equipment on a regularly scheduled train from Denver to Chicago (#5, the California Zephyr) and then from Chicago to DC (#29, the Capitol Limited).

Thanks to Matt Johnson and Twitter user @kencon06 for helping to solve this mystery.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces

Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.

Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The Mosaic District in Fairfax caught onto this idea a few years ago, and it could totally work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

We first ran this post in 2014, but since the idea is still great, we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


In Denver, you can now take a train from the airport to downtown

There's a new way to get from Denver's airport to downtown: the University of Colorado A Line, which opened in April. When I rode it, I enjoyed how easy it was to get a ticket and connect to other transit lines downtown. I'm a little worried about long ticket lines and a confusing name, though.

Colorado A Line train at Denver's Union Station with unknown family. All photos by the author.

The A Line runs 23 at-grade miles to Union Station (near Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play), with a expected to leave the airport about every 15 minutes. While it's named after the University of Colorado, that's just a business partnership; none of the line's eight stops has a University of Colorado campus nearby (that I could tell).

The line connects to other operating light rail lines (streetcars with overhead wires) and bus systems, such as the 16th Street Mall bus (which will take you farther into downtown Denver). Two new commuter rail lines are expected to open later this year. As the RTD (Regional Transportation District) website states, "this is all part of FasTracks, a multi-billion dollar voter-approved transit expansion plan bringing you more transportation options than ever before."

A day pass for the A Line is $9. Compare that to an average $74 taxi or $33 Uber (what I paid to ride from downtown back to the airport), and this option is the clear winner when it comes to price.

At the airport, the train is just a short trip down the escalators from baggage claim.

Signs at the Denver Airport. Photo by the author.

When I got to the ticket kiosks, two people were ready to help me purchase a rail pass, which was quite easy. Currently, there are only four kiosks, two of which are debit/credit only. A small line did form as people waited to purchase a ticket. When more people are traveling, I imagine there's going to be an annoying wait.

Train ticket purchase kiosks at Denver Airport. Photo by the author.

The Airport Day Pass Ticket ($9). Photo by the author.

Luckily, there was a train waiting at the station when I was ready to go. It had four rail cars with space to stow luggage, skis, bikes, and wheelchairs.

Interior shot of Colorado A Line train car. Photo by the author.

It was nice to ride a new train with clean seats and floors (though there was no "new train" smell, from what I could tell). There are three ways of communicating with passengers: announcements (engineer & pre-recorded), LED screens, and a scrolling message bar. The engineer also updated us on delays and was easy to hear—just like it happens on Metro, we had to pause until another train cleared the station.

Display screen in the Colorado A Line train car. Photo by the author.

There isn't all that much of a view once you get past the first few stops. It's rows and rows of industrial buildings (such as the Seattle Fish Co.—"If it swims, we have it."). A fun part is that the train does blow its whistle before every road crossing, which the kids on board loved.

Interestingly enough, the rail line had people stationed at each crossing (which all had stopping arms). My guess is that they were there to ensure people stopped and that the guard arms were working properly.

The train line ends at Union Station, and there aren't currently any plans to expand it farther. Lastly, there were signs indicating other fare options if you weren't using the train to get to the airport but to commute.

Outside of Denver's Union Station. Photo by the author.

I do see issues with the ticket lines as the A Line catches on with visitors and Denverites. Even at Union Station, there were only a handful of kiosks. And the rail line name could cause some confusion. But overall, riding the A Line was a pleasant experience, and I'd use it again.


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:


Worldwide links: Los Angeles Olympics, 2024?

Los Angeles wants the 2024 Olympics and says it can do the job for cheap, Greyhound is looking for a new lease on life, and in Georgia, voters just lost their chance to decide whether to fund MARTA expansion. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Michael Li on Flickr.

Olympic Trials: It costs a lot to host the Olympics, and recently most of the willing bidders have been cities in countries with horrible human rights records. A lot of cities in wealthier countries have said no to hosting, but Los Angeles says it has a model for running the Games at low cost, and wants to use it in 2024. (ESPN)

Greyhound makeover: Greyhound, which many have long viewed as a travel mode of last resort, is working to attract younger riders and stay relevant. By creating new apps and upgrading its aging fleet, the company hopes to compete on shorter haul routes that have been long dominated by the airline industry. (Dallas Morning News)

MARTA never had a chance: Many Georgia voters thought they'd be voting this fall on whether to expand MARTA. That won't happen, though, as the measure won't be on the ballot because suburban legislators scuttled a vote on the bill proposing to put it there. (Curbed Atlanta)

Denver's disputed plan: Blueprint Denver, which in 2002 said which parts of the city should develop and which should stay the same, is due for an update. Local density opponents say that prevailing interpretations of the plan have been too friendly to developers. (Westword)

Healthy town: In England, new towns are focusing on health outcomes for residents, with places fighting diseases like diabetes by promoting active living and restricting fast food near schools. Ten new towns are planned for 170,000 residents by 2030. (Mashable)

For transit, regional > local: In a number of European cities, regional associations called Verkehrsverbünde handle transit operations and coordination. Doing it this way rather than having local, individual agencies run most transit systems, could mean more ridership, lower costs, and better land use decisions. (MZ Strategies)

Quote of the Week

"The London Congestion Charge is better than nothing but does not do the job as effectively as it might since it is not closely related to the congestion costs any given journey creates and, as a cordon charge, in fact generates an incentive once you have paid the charge to use your vehicle."

- Paul Cheshire, Emeritus Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics.


Denver's beautiful Union Station mixes old and new

When Denver needed a new transit hub, city leaders naturally looked at the city's aging Union Station. Now after a massive expansion, Union Station is a monument to multimodalism, and a beautiful architectural mix of ornate old and shimmering new.

Denver Union Station. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

The new Denver Union Station combines five transit modes with expansive new and refurbished public spaces, and a brand new transit-oriented neighborhood.

Historic depot building

The station is anchored by the beautifully renovated 1894 depot building, with its lovingly restored, bright, airy waiting room. The ground floor includes popular restaurants and bars, along with table shuffleboard sets and occasional live music performances. The upper floors now host a boutique hotel.

Waiting room. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

Plazas surrounding the outside of the depot building are well-landscaped, and integrate nicely with the bustling LoDo neighborhood across the street. They form the northern end of Denver's 16th Street pedestrian mall, and are a vast improvement over the surface parking lots that formerly occupied the same space.

Multimodal transit

The station brings together Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail, and local and intercity buses.

New commuter and light rail lines are the major components of Denver's impressive FasTracks plan, which is adding about 100 miles of new rail to the city's transit network. Union Station will be the hub.

Immediately behind the historic depot lie the new platforms for Amtrak and commuter rail. They're partially covered by the grandest train shed in America.

Intercity and commuter rail platforms. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

For now there's only a slow trickle of Amtrak trains using these platforms. But starting in 2016 when Denver's new commuter rail lines begin to open, it will bustle.

Denver's coming transit lines. Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

Beneath the train shed lies Union Station's subterranean bus depot, the closest thing Denver has to a subway.

The bus depot serves as both a transit terminal and a pedestrian walkway between the main station and the light rail platforms, further beyond the train shed. It's a long walk from one end to the other, but it's an attractive space.

At the far end, Denver's light rail. The city has had light rail since 1994, but it's expanding under the FasTracks program.

Beyond the light rail, active freight rail tracks pass by to the northwest.

Entrance to the bus terminal and light rail station, with freight tracks to the right. Photo by the author.

Transit-oriented development

While the station itself is finished and open to the traveling public, the surrounding land is only half-complete. The former industrial railyards behind the station are being redeveloped as a new high-rise neighborhood.

Millions of square feet of development are planned, with thousands of new housing units in the pipeline. Multiple blocks of mixed-use infill development are under construction.

Denver is undergoing a population and building boom, so planners and developers anticipate high demand for the new units. The South Platte River Valley just to the north is also a fun and attractive part of the city, popular with tourists, cyclists, and shoppers visiting REI's flagship store on the left bank of the river, housed in the former power plant for Denver's streetcar system.

When it's all complete, Denver will have an impressive new urban neighborhood, fully integrated with and surrounding its new transit hub.

New buildings going up. Photo by the author.

A model for DC

The plan to redevelop Washington Union Station is, if anything, even more ambitious and complex than Denver's.

But as the DC area prepares to make that plan a reality, we can draw lessons from Denver's successes. Colorado's experience shows that it's possible to integrate multimodal planning and strong land use decisions, to a beautiful result.


The biggest bikeshare station in each US city

Throughout 2014, DC and New York have jockeyed back and forth over which city's bikeshare system has the most stations in the United States. But who has the biggest stations?

New York’s 67-dock station. Photo from Google.

DC currently leads in the number of stations race, 335 to 324. But the number of stations only tells part of the story. New York's stations are vastly bigger than DC's, and by far the largest in the US.

New York's biggest station, which is outside of Penn Station, has a whopping 67 docks. It's almost 50% larger than the next city's largest station.

Here's the number of docks at the biggest station in America's main big-city bikeshare systems:

RankCityLargest stationDocks at largest station
1New YorkPenn Station67
2BostonSouth Station46
3WashingtonDupont Circle45
5MinneapolisCoffman Union and Lake/Knox32
6Miami Beach46th/Collins31
7tSan FranciscoMarket/10th and 2nd/Townsend27

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces

Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.

Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Tackling truancy, part 3: The solution is collaboration

This is the third installment of a series on truancy in DC schools. Read part 1 and part 2.

Truancy isn't a new problem, nor one unique to DC. School systems around the country have tried various approaches that leverage state services and civil society to engage the child and their family on many levels. Many have been able to take a bite out of chronic truancy.

Truancy. Image from EducationNext

In the end, however, truancy isn't the problem; it is a symptom of social dysfunction that requires a comprehensive social policy response. There's nothing wrong with treating symptoms; many become a problem unto themselves. However, lasting success won't come until someday we address underlying issues of poverty, alienation, community collapse, and educational failure.

Before considering those more comprehensive programs, let's address the common trope of simply employing a "tough love" punitive approach with the children themselves.

Washington State's punishments haven't reduced truancy

Washington State passed the so-called "Becca Bill" in 1995, a law that required prosecuting children after 7 absences in a month or 10 in a year. Children could get sentences of up to 7 days in juvenile hall.

In 2005, 15,000 children went to court, and that number hasn't decreased materially in years. This shows that this policy isn't solving truancy. There's no evidence to suggest the numbers declined soon after the law was implemented either; on the contrary, it appears Becca's Bill may have made things worse, with rates rising consistently through the Aughts.

The results of a punitive approach in Washington State.
Graphic from a report by the Washington State Center for Court Research.

Denver's approach goes inside the school

Another option is to have disciplinary procedures inside the school for truancy. Many jurisdictions have tried this, including DC. DCPS apathy undermined such an effort here, but Denver's program is considered a model. Their Student Attendance Review Boards contain representatives of social services, probation, juvenile justice, police, local businesses and civic leaders, school staff, parents, and city officials.

With wide-ranging options derived from the resources of these various organizations, the board is able to develop "contracts" with the child and their family that leverage support services throughout the community to resolve the family's troubles. Significantly, the cost of this program is rather low; the Denver boards must only convince one out of every 739 truants to stay in school and graduate in order to pay for itself.

The CMPI model. Graphic from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

DC's approach: build connections to social service agencies

DC tried a related approach that was unconnected to its in-school court experience: the Truancy Case Management Partnership Initiative (CMPI), which excluded the judiciary, police, and prosecutors, but included CFSA, DCPS staff, and the Healthy Families/Thriving Communities collaborative.

The goal was less a contract-oriented approach than to create "linkage" between children and their families to various services. This would, officials hoped, reduce the pressures the children were experiencing and facilitate attendance.

The pilot met with mixed success. It achieved its intermediate goal of lowering pressure on the families, and the families that qualified were indeed under immense strain. Some have suggested that is reason enough to continue, but the program was terminated after truancy rates did not respond significantly.

There may be reasons for this. In DC, truancy as a pattern is established in 8th grade while this program only addressed high schoolers. Perhaps catching the kids before they develop habits of cutting class would be more effective.

Further, the pilot took on the highest-truancy schools; the program may be effective, and simply unable to handle the peer-truancy feedback loop that has metastasized there. A broader test that began in 7th grade across a range of schools would be a better test of this approach.

Truancy begins in 8th grade. Image from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

Minnesota's approach: Long-term contact

The "Check and Connect" program developed in Minnesota takes this coordination even further with a long-term case officer approach. If a student is truant or tardy on a regular basis, the program assigns a monitor/mentor. That person is the advocate, mentor, and service coordinator for the child and their family for two years, focusing entirely on preserving and enhancing the student's attachment to school.

The goal is to prevent a patten where the student oscillates from truancy, to successful intervention, to attendance, to benign neglect by the various institutions, and then back to truancy. As the initial conditions of school, family, and community all encouraged the child to be truant, C&C assumes those conditions will reassert themselves some time after the initial successful intervention. The long-term monitoring tries to prevent the child from returning to that pattern before it begins, allowing positive habits to have a longer period to take hold.

Will Denver's and Minnesota's programs work here?

Some combination of the Denver and Minnesota approaches seem ideal, but of course the District is a different context. Not only is it an urban school district, with all the distractions a child could want located along the walk to school, but it is one with a core of extreme poverty.

DC does not have a bell curve income distribution. Concentrated poverty in the eastern third of the city leaves children with few role models in their neighborhoods, and low expectations for themselves. This means there are fewer civic organizations whose services can be leveraged to encourage pro-social behavior, and there are many adults in this communities who are unemployed and unproductive during the same school day the child is being asked to work.

It is unlikely that these facts on the ground will change in a generation. There are few low-skill jobs in the Washington area, and those that exist often require consistent work history and a professional demeanor. After several years of unemployment, it is unlikely that adults who either lack, or possess no more than a high school diploma will ever be employed again. The children of that community must then be saved despite the negative examples all around them, which is a task that few other communities must strive against.

At the same time, the District is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. It has resources few others can muster, and a large population of socially-conscious residents of means who can be recruited to help. Engagement with the child and family that promotes a sense of personal stake and commitment in education is the answer. It has been done before, successfully, and if DC faces a more difficult challenge it also possesses better tools.

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